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Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society

The Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society's building at the Napa Valley Expo has been closed in recent weeks as an Alameda County court continues to hear the rail hobbyist group's lawsuit against the state-run fairground over the termination of its lease.

The model railroad club fighting the Napa Valley Expo to stay in its longtime home has closed the building to visitors, with no indication about when, or if, it will reopen.

The closure of the miniature train display at the Third Street fairground was confirmed last Tuesday by Gary Valentinsen, a participant in the Napa Valley Model Railroad Historical Society. Calendar listings on the group’s website show a succession of scheduled work nights and train runs replaced by “closed to public” notices, going back to June 22 and extending into Saturday, when a scenery-planning session had been scheduled in its clubhouse.

“No public visitation at this time,” the online alerts read. “We apologize for those who wanted to visit, please check back. Thank you for your continued support.”

Closing the train display to visitors was a “mutual decision” of the rail group and Expo management, the fair’s chief executive Joe Anderson said Wednesday. He declined further comment, citing a seven-month-old lawsuit over the Expo’s decision in 2017 to end the train society’s lease.

Dan Jonas, president of the model train enthusiast group, declined to comment.

The shutdown is playing out amid a continuing legal dispute between the model train group and the Expo, which since 1970 has hosted the society’s collection of trains, rails, scenery and switching equipment in a pair of Quonset huts.

After the Expo’s board of directors voted last year to end the group’s lease – an early step toward a planned redevelopment that would create parking at the model rail site to support a future livestock pavilion for the Town and Country Fair – the rail group sued in Alameda County Superior Court Dec. 29, two days before the lease’s expiration, to stop the eviction. Members of the nonprofit made no moves to dismantle its elaborate 1/87-scale train layout, and continued hosting weekend rail events at the clubhouse in the first few months after taking the Expo to court.

Late Tuesday afternoon, when no events were scheduled, the model railroad building was locked and appeared dormant save for two open windows on its small upper floor. A placard made from four sheets of paper, affixed to the double doors in front, urged supporters to “HELP US SAVE THE RAILROAD MUSEUM” and was flanked by a plastic sleeve containing copies of petitions to sign.

Lawyers for the train enthusiasts have argued that removing the display would be an illegal jump-start on the Expo’s renovation, carried out without a state-required environmental review.

As the dispute has continued in court, two state-sponsored inspections of the rail building have led to reports asserting various problems with fire resistance and electrical safety, as well as structural and foundation weaknesses. Jonas, the group president, has alleged “inaccuracies” in the inspections but has not said which parts of the report the train society disputes.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.